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Indianapolis is the largest city in the country without a universal curbside recycling program, according to The Indianapolis Star. So, it may come as little surprise to learn that just 4% of the city's garbage is recycled each year.
Without universal curbside recycling, residents in Indianapolis have to either go somewhere to drop off their recycling, or pay an $8-a-month subscription fee to have someone come and pick it up off their curb — a system that has frustrated residents, according to Allyson Mitchell, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition.
"We take phone calls, and we get confusion, perplexion, and we do hear some anger from people," Mitchell says. "Especially when they move from other parts of the country and they come to Indianapolis, they expect to see the same level of services that they had in other cities of our size, and when they come here and realize that they have to pay extra and take an extra effort to recycle, they're frustrated."
Of Marion County's approximately 267,000 households, only 10% are enrolled in the subscription program, making up about 26,000 households, according to Katie Robinson, director of the city’s office of sustainability.
She doesn't necessarily look at the city’s low recycling rate as a black eye, but rather as an opportunity for Indianapolis to grow a program that fits its needs. Robinson says Indianapolis hopes to implement a citywide curbside recycling program by 2025 — and she sees an urgent need to do so.
"We actually just completed the city's greenhouse gas inventory and our emissions from waste is continuing to grow rather rapidly," she says. "It was kind of striking to see that increase, and so, we are very concerned.
"We need to get some of that waste processed accordingly."
Robinson says Indianapolis hopes to tackle its food waste problem as well, by eventually offering a subscription-based composting service to residents. For both programs, though, the city needs to move strategically, she says.
"We have a manufacturing base in the state of Indiana, and we have the processors that are the step in between your blue bin and those manufacturing facilities."Allyson Mitchell
"We could flip a switch tomorrow and have a recycling program. We may fail at it," Robinson says. "We are trying to look at the full, holistic implementation of such a program."
One of the issues factoring into Indianapolis' and other cities' recycling woes is the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. In Baltimore, the city's director of public works says recycling costs have gone up 191% from a year ago and that boosting the recycling rate will be more difficult now that China has banned imports of foreign recyclables.
But what helps Indianapolis, unlike many cities in the U.S., is that it doesn’t have to ship its materials to China. Indiana has a number of its own trash and recycling processors. While Indianapolis still has to deal with the depressed market value of recycled materials due to China’s ban, the city can take advantage of the above-average rates provided by in-state manufacturers, according to Mitchell.
"We have a manufacturing base in the state of Indiana, and we have the processors that are the step in between your blue bin and those manufacturing facilities," she says. "That's why a recycling program in the city of Indianapolis is really well positioned to be successful."
Beyond China, another obstacle for Indianapolis is the city's culture surrounding recycling. For decades, Indianapolis has hired outside companies to incinerate its garbage. The city's contracts with those companies have also required a minimum amount of waste to be sent to its incinerator, which has acted as a disincentive for the city to implement universal curbside recycling, according to Mitchell.
Those contract minimums are no longer in place, but Indianapolis' contract with its current incinerator company, Covanta Energy, won't expire until 2025.
"That's why 2025 is kind of the magic date in terms of making this significant shift in the way that this community views and values its waste — to get it out of the trash and put more into the recycling bin, at least the proper recyclables," says Mitchell.
For now, changing the recycling culture of Indianapolis is the city's No. 1 priority, says Robinson.
"Our hope is that we can also influence people to consider the amount of consumption and just start looking at what they're consuming and try to reduce that as well," she says.
This segment aired on May 17, 2019.